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Trash Talk

Margo Reid Brown '85, director of CalRecycle, sorts through the nitty-gritty of recycling in California and why every person can make a difference.

Margo Reid Brown is director of California’s new Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, known as CalRecycle. Photo courtesy of Margo Reid Brown.
Margo Reid Brown is director of California’s new Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, known as CalRecycle. Photo courtesy of Margo Reid Brown.

According to Margo Reid Brown ’85, almost every item you use on a daily basis can be recycled or reused. In her position as director of California’s new Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, known as CalRecycle, Brown’s job is to balance the state’s recycling efforts with its waste disposal.

“Our goal is to divert solid waste away from landfills and into new, higher-value products,” Brown said. “We work with local governments to regulate and inspect solid waste disposal sites, and we coordinate all of the state’s recycling efforts.”

Brown’s interest in working in politics and government began as an undergraduate in USC College, where she majored in international relations and political science. Her experience at USC, and her senior year internship in the Los Angeles field office of United States Senator Pete Wilson, helped to launch her career, which she said draws on the negotiation, critical thinking and sound judgment skills she learned while a student.

After graduation, Brown worked for Wilson during his term as governor of California, served as president of the Junior League of Sacramento, founded consulting firm Capitol Ideas Development Corporation, and served as director of scheduling for the Office of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger before being named chair of the Integrated Waste Management Board in 2006.

With a statewide 59 percent recycling rate for all materials, Brown has high hopes for the future of California. “Our annual solid waste diversion rates continue to lead the nation,” she said. “That tells me that Californians, in record numbers, are embracing our message.”

For information on which items can be recycled and where, Brown recommends earth911.org and CalRecycle’s site for local beverage container recycling facilities, bottlesandcans.com. For more information on CalRecycle, visit calrecycle.ca.gov.

 

What is the status of California’s recycling program?

The Integrated Waste Management Act AB 939 was passed by the Legislature in 1989, when California was only diverting 10 percent of its waste away from landfills. The law required us to raise the statewide recycling rate to above 50 percent by the year 2000. We’ve met and exceeded that goal; most California jurisdictions have met the 50 percent target, and the few that have not are making good-faith efforts to reach that number. In some cities and regions, the community recycling rate is as high as 70 or 80 percent. Similarly, California’s statewide bottle and can recycling rate is near 85 percent — the highest it has ever been.

 

Where does most of the recycling go in California? What are most recycled materials made into?

Many of the commodities recycled in California — aluminum cans, old cardboard, used office paper — are sold to processors and manufacturers worldwide. The materials are made into new products that find their way back into the marketplace — a process that saves natural resources and energy. Recycling aluminum requires 95 percent less energy than to create it from raw materials. Other examples include used motor oil, which can be re-refined and used again and again, and old tires, millions of which are kept out of landfills each year by being converted into new products from patio furniture to a durable asphalt alternative for road-paving projects.

 

What are the most critical steps we can take to reduce the waste we produce?

The choices we make in the things we buy greatly impact what ultimately gets thrown away. Buy items sold in bulk, made with minimal packaging, made from recycled products and items that can be recycled themselves. At the supermarket, avoid buying more than you need. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates Americans throw away nearly 96 billion pounds of food each year. In California, food waste represents 15.5 percent of all waste in landfills. Think about creative uses for old products before you toss them into the trash. The holiday season is a time for joy, but unfortunately it’s also a time for waste. Americans throw away an additional 6 million tons of trash each year between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

 

Beyond the health and environmental benefits, how does recycling benefit me?

Recycling and product reuse have short-term benefits and can mean long-term savings, too. Extending the useful life of our landfills delays the costly and time-consuming process of planning for replacement landfill sites. Finding new uses for old products helps preserve our planet’s resources. Recycling provides a significant boost to California’s economy. The recycling industry accounts for about 85,000 jobs in our state, generating $4 billion yearly in salaries and wages, and producing an estimated $10 billion worth of goods and services annually. The business community knows that waste-reduction and product-reuse strategies can help bolster profit margins, which in turn gives the companies more flexibility to expand their workforce.

 

How do California’s recycling efforts compare to other states?

California is recognized as the leader in almost every category. We recycle more beverage containers than any other state — a record 17.2 billion bottles and cans in 2009 alone. Reuse of those products will save the equivalent of 73 million barrels of oil, and reduce atmospheric carbon emissions by 673,000 metric tons. Last year we were able to divert almost 54 million tons of trash away from landfills and back into the marketplace through products ranging from recycled-content furniture to high-quality compost. In certain cases, our approach to recycling and product reuse differs from other states. For example, most other states simply use old tires as a fuel source for power plants and cement kilns. California chose to pursue a different, market-based approach to encourage new uses for waste tires. We now divert about 75 percent of our waste tires — about 30 million tires annually — away from California landfills and into new, higher-value products.

 

What types of alternative energy and biofuels can be developed from waste materials after high-value recyclables have been removed?

Landfill methane plants already provide more than 10 percent of the nation’s energy supply. We’re also seeing great promise from waste-to-energy systems, such as anaerobic digestion systems that can break down solid wastes being sent to landfills. Two beneficial end products are methane gas, which can be used to generate electricity and high-quality compost. Similar systems are turning waste into biofuels and compressed natural gas. Keeping landfill gases out of the atmosphere is important because methane has been found to be 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a harmful greenhouse gas. In a pilot project that we helped fund at the Altamont Landfill east of San Francisco, methane gas is being captured and converted to liquefied natural gas, which is being used as fuel for a fleet of garbage trucks and recycling vehicles servicing communities in the region.

 

Does recycling really make a difference?

You’re probably seeing the results of recycled products every day: park benches manufactured from old soda bottles, new clothes made from recycled fibers, streets paved with a mix of traditional asphalt and ground tires, reusable shopping bags made from recycled plastic, and produce raised on farms using compost created from yard clippings and food scraps. The list of recycled-content products in the marketplace is growing almost on a daily basis.

It’s not unlike the old adage that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. When we break down the barriers to recycling, more people will recycle. When schoolchildren learn about recycling and environmental stewardship, it helps to influence patterns that can last a lifetime. Try to do at least one act daily that promotes recycling and waste reduction. Every person can make a difference.

 

Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Fall 2010/Winter 2011 issue